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How Anxiety Takes on a Life of Its Own

Unless you can escape the avoidance trap, your anxiety will last indefinitely.

Key points

  • If someone doesn't feel they can fight or flee an object of terror, their last remaining option is to dissociate or “freeze” in the face of it.
  • It’s only human nature that when one experiences nervous or panicky feelings about something, they’ll do almost anything to get out of it.
  • The worst consequence of a traumatic experience is that the extreme defense it births can overgeneralize to anything even vaguely resembling it.
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What distinguishes genuine fear from uncontrollable anxiety is that the former is reality-based. If we’re confronted by a 1,000-lb grizzly bear and fail to experience fear, we’ll likely end up as that immense animal’s next meal. Extreme anxiety, however, is experiencing the same physical and mental symptoms of trepidation in the absence of any peril.

In short, strictly defined, the emotion of fear is adaptive. Exaggerated anxiety—constituting a disproportionate, distorted, and super-vigilant perspective toward something that merely feels threatening—is maladaptive.

Essentially, it all comes down to an appraisal that’s gratuitously catastrophic.

The unfortunate (and all-too-common) human dilemma is that millions, if not billions, of people worldwide suffer from the extraordinary distress caused by this anxiety-induced erroneous assessment. And that’s because as dysfunctional as the emotion is, the in-the-moment reaction to it is curiously adaptive.

It’s only human nature that when we begin to experience nervous or panicky feelings about doing something, we’ll do anything we can to avoid it. And assuming we’re able to evade or postpone it, we’ll experience immediate relief, a significant drop in our anxiety level.

How Unresolved Trauma Gives Rise to Recalcitrant Avoidance

So where does this super-charged anxiety come from originally? And why is it so hard—at times, seemingly impossible—to eradicate?

As I noted in a previous post, the two words that, albeit unconsciously, people say to themselves when they’ve been in a situation that felt absolutely terrifying to them is “Never again!” In most instances, this emotionally unbearable experience translates to “I have to do whatever I can to avoid putting myself in this situation again.”

The main problem is that the extreme defense mechanism birthed by this so-scary experience tends to generalize to anything even vaguely resembling it. And this is the case even if the linkage is clearly arbitrary, superficial, or coincidental.

That is, this stratagem—unconsciously devised to safeguard you from future threats—falsely perceives as threatening challenging events that you should be welcoming rather than worrying about.

As a trauma victim, you’re now sensitized to negative contingencies. You can’t help overgeneralizing certain things as unsafe. At its most diffuse, you see the entire world distrustingly as precarious.

So whether you were molested, severely beaten or bullied, shamed, or simply made to feel inadequate or inferior, if the circumstance far outstripped your coping resources, instinctively you would have become “programmed” never to expose yourself to anything like it again.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about primitive, absolutist defense mechanisms is that though they become an intimate part of your being, they don’t represent who you are fundamentally. Even more intriguing, they don’t mature over time—as, of course, you do.

So regardless of whether you’re 25 or 75, they still feel an urgent need to protect you as though you were maybe 5, 10, or 15. All of which is to say that despite their becoming increasingly hazardous to your growth and development, they unequivocally mean well. They just don’t know any better.

If You Don’t Feel You Can Fight or Flee It, the Only Option Is to “Face” It

What’s critical to understand is that when you’re traumatized, the fight-or-flight response no longer feels tenable to you. That, after all, is precisely what defines it as traumatic.

If you felt you could effectively combat the opposing force, you would have done so, thus eluding the trauma. Or if you felt you could successfully flee from it, that, too, would have enabled an anxiety-dissipating resolution of the experience.

But when neither of these alternatives seems available, the best you can do is, “adaptively,” to freeze—to emotionally dissociate yourself from what you lack the capacity to deal with. This is when a once innocent, joyous, and spontaneous part of you self-sacrificially volunteers to take on the role of protector (see R. Schwartz, the originator of Internal Family Systems, 2001).

In a sense, this protector “takes you over.” Locked in this difficult role, the part—or sub-personality—is no older than you. And to permanently safeguard your welfare (as, that is, it understands it), it’s stagnant, fixed in time, and not subject to any maturational process.

This peculiarly human phenomenon helps explain why as they age many people realize that their now firmly entrenched avoidance patterns are preventing them from meeting obstacles and progressing in life. Yet whenever they force themselves to act, their anxiety escalates to such a degree that they feel compelled—as though their very life depends on it—to stop and freeze in their tracks.

Strangely, it’s something like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Fearing that a bloodcurdling panic attack is imminent, the alarm bells set off are just too unsettling to ignore. Your inner, hyper-avoidant protector, however outdated and extraneous in the present, won’t stop screaming at you, demanding that whatever you may be embarked on come to a screeching halt.

In sum, despite how wrong-headed your defense against re-traumatization may be, it still holds sway over you. This is when it could be said to have your life in its hands—or rather, a life of its own. And blanketing you with action-hindering anxiety is its way of making certain you don’t do anything that a much younger you couldn’t help but experience as mortally threatening.

Longer-Term Solutions

For several decades, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques have been employed to deal with both contemporary and chronic anxiety problems. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Anchoring or grounding
  • Halting counter-productive rumination
  • Learning mindfulness and mindful meditation
  • Deep, slowed-down breathing
  • Immersing your face in cold water (as, similar to other approaches, it positively affects your brain circuitry)
  • Peaceful, tranquilizing imagery
  • Several other relaxation techniques, such as physiological focusing and yoga
  • Graduated exposure (to the potentially threatening situation)—or, most recently, virtual reality (VR) exposure

As effective as CBT techniques are, though, it must be admitted that they’re more successful with everyday stressors (say, exam, social, or work-related pressures) than with more diffuse, trauma-caused anxiety because rather than dealing directly with troublesome, outdated defenses, they largely bypass them. That’s why in these instances, I recommend a more trauma-based approach, such as Internal Family Systems (IFS), Somatic Experiencing, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Schema Therapy.

What’s critical, though, is not to give up hope, particularly if you’ve been saddled with aggravating symptoms of anxiety for so long that you’ve concluded they must be irremediable. For there’s every reason to believe that as long as you fully apply yourself to overcome them, then whether on your own or (more likely) with a qualified therapist, you’ll finally free yourself from the misery that’s almost come to define your self-perception.

Remember, what got programmed into you can be programmed out of you as well. Whether or not you’re genetically predisposed to anxiety, it hardly needs to plague you forever. So being diligent—and especially patient—will eventually turn the anxiety tide for you.

© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Levine, P. A. (2008). Healing trauma: A pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of the body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Pub.

Schwartz, R. (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Pk, IL: Trailheads Pub.

Seltzer, L. F. (2015, Jul 8). Trauma and the freeze response: Good, bad, or both?

Seltzer, L. F. (2017, Sep 13). “Never again!” The psychological fallout of trauma.

Seltzer, L. F. (2022, Sept 28). You don’t choose your defenses, your defenses choose you.

Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR Therapy. New York: Rodale Press.

Young, J. E., & Klosko, J. S. (1993). Reinventing your life: The breakthrough program to end negative behavior and feel great again. New York: Penguin Books.

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